The question is not uncommon these days for someone who has been the principal historian on the ITU over the past 40 years. The short answer is that the institution should do just fine. Indeed, the appearance of bizarre phenomena like Trump, enhance the value and trustworthiness of a stable, globally inclusive intergovernmental venue dealing with matters that by their nature require worldwide cooperation and is buttressed by one of the most highly regarded Secretary-Generals in its history. Notwithstanding an unbounded, if not unhinged ego, Trump cannot build radio wave walls, nor can he force other nations to accept his communications. There is no "alt-truth" to the physics of telecommunication. Trump's failure to collaborate only has negative outcomes for the nation he purports to lead. Bully Bilateralism not only doesn't work with communication networks — it engenders pariah status.
In many ways, this article is striking similar to one written 35 years ago when the Reagan administration tooled into Washington and Elliot Abrams took over the State Department's International Organizations bureau and promptly pasted Get the U.S. out of the U.N. bumper stickers all over his office, and draft withdrawal bills circulated on the Hill. Today, we have cretaceous congressmen in the House and Senate giddy on a Trump high, who are doing the same thing. And then there is the example of a Harding Administration actually temporarily accomplishing this step about a hundred years ago — which brought about telecommunication chaos for the nation, and handed the leadership mantle to Adolf Hitler in Europe.
So what happened 35 years ago? For some months the new Administration folks — especially following the 1982 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference which was a first time experience for them — paraded around Washington calling for ITU withdrawal. Then someone who had good Reagan connections, a lot of energy and ambition, and some sense of larger purpose by the name of Diana Dougan saw value in the ITU. In the space of a few months, she became schooled on the essentials, turned a minor State Department office into a major bureau coordinating ITU policy, and garnered a recess ambassador appointment. Meanwhile, Abrams found other pursuits such as running Iranian guns secretly into Central American conflict zones.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the U.S. telecommunication and radiocommunication industry and other U.S. government agencies conveyed the basics of physics and economics that have always ensured an ITU value proposition. In addition, the legendary Anne Branscomb (who by chance had a vacation condo next to the Dougans) organized the international lawyers and bar associations of the world to rally around the legal benefits provided through the ITU. For some years during that period, the ITU hosted an international legal thinktank that culminated in the American Bar Association's Science and Technology Section's seminal Law of Global Communications Networks book. Indeed, in 1986 the authors largely wrote the script for what subsequently went wrong in the world of global networks.
So the reason why the transient petulant politicians now stomping around Washington railing about intergovernmental agencies in general and the ITU, in particular, will fail is because global treaty agreements are essential to electronic communications and modern nations. These agreements have remained essential since the first networks were interconnected in 1850 and the first radio waves across borders were emitted 50 years later. Indeed, those agreements are far more essential today for both operational and national security purposes. Everyone is in the same game together and the expert community both in the U.S. government and industry are experienced ITU experts respected by their peers worldwide. They deserve and need more support, not de-funding and gagging.
The nation that understands the value proposition best today is China who has supported one of its finest early digital network engineers for the past 35 years to serve in multiple capacities. Houlin Zhao is now ITU Secretary-General. China also continues to devote substantial resources to constructive participation — often collaborating closely with Korea and Japan within the CJK alliance — even as many of the ITU roles have dispersed to other venues. Indeed, China has adapted to now usefully help developing countries of the world understand important developments across the larger ecosystem of industry bodies in which they also devote the most expansive resources because they understand the future, the need to assist other nations, and intends to play a major role within the global information economy.
Trump's outrageous attempts to set the world clock of international cooperation and economics back 150 years removes the U.S. from the role of a global leader. It is an utterly foolish, backward vision that trades increasing personal wealth and making a few extra legacy automobiles for domestic consumption in a walled-in country for the nation's success in a rapidly growing world information economy.
So while the U.S. as a nation must endure and get through its own national tragedy of Trump, the ITU will do just fine. It will still be there when the U.S. returns to the table of nations.
By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC
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